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Males and potential business majors at MIT are more likely to cheat on MasteringPhysics, and cheaters tend to do worse on the physics final and are more likely to fail, according to a study published yesterday.

MIT physics professor David E. Pritchard and three co-authors analyzed how many students copied answers to MasteringPhysics problems in 8.01T in fall 2003 through 2005 and 8.02T in spring 2006. They found that the repeated copying of MasteringPhysics problems was highly correlated with poor performance on the final and failing freshman physics.

MasteringPhysics.com is a “web-based socratic tutorial homework system” that presents students with multiple-choice physics problems. Its use is required in 8.01T and 8.02T.

The authors collected data on how much time elapsed between when students opened a problem in their browser and when they submitted a correct answer, as well as whether they used any of the hints or made any mistakes.

They observed three groups: “quick solvers” who submitted a correct answer in a minute without making mistakes, “real-time solvers” who answered in ten minutes after checking various hints and making at least one mistake, and “delayed solvers” who submit a day or two after opening the problem. The group of “quick solvers” were labeled as cheaters under the author’s definition of cheating as “obtain[ing] and submit[ing] an answer with essentially no intellectual engagement with the question.”

For the data collected from the Fall 2003 semester of 8.01, the authors classified the students into four groups:

10% Heavy copiers (copying >50% of all problems)
10% Moderate copiers (copying 30–50% of problems)
29% Light copiers (copying 10–30% of problems)
51% Copied less than 10% of problems

They found that the heavy copiers scored 1.3 standard deviations below the last group on the final. Extrapolating from the heavy copier’s average copy rate of 62 percent, they conclude that a person who copied 100 percent of the problems would score a full 2 standard deviations below a non-cheater.

What motivates students to cheat? Time pressure and difficulty are the primary motivators: “Students are more likely to copy a problem if it is more difficult, if it is later in the assignment, if they do it closer to the deadline, or if the assignment is later in the term,” the authors wrote.

Do cheaters try hard but have “weak academic skills”? In fact the opposite, the authors conclude. Copiers were about as skilled in math and physics as the non-copiers as measured by an initial pre-test administered on the first day of class. Instead, the authors argue, copiers tend to be students exerting the least effort, those who start their assignments very late, very close to the deadline.

The article was co-authored by David J. Palazzo, Young-Jin Lee, Rasil Warnakulasooriya. It was published in the journal Physics Review Special Topics — Physics Education Research yesterday. It is available online at http://prst-per.aps.org/abstract/PRSTPER/v6/i1/e010104.